Monday, October 26, 2009

Flaherty, Yoon, and Selvig Decry BRA Attitude Towards Neighborhood

Mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty, currently a Boston City Councilor-At-Large, came to the Brighton Mills shopping center this morning to decry the negative attitude expressed in email by some city officials towards Allston-Brighton residents over the proposed Charlesview relocation development project. He was joined by his unofficial running-mate, Councilor-At-Large Sam Yoon (together, "Floon"), as well as District 9 City Councilor candidate Alex Selvig (together, "Floonig"?).

Flaherty noted at the press conference that he and Yoon "work for you, and Mayor Menino works for you, [and] the BRA does, too. But you would never know it from the emails. One of the things we don't need to be doing is disrespecting [residents of] the neighborhood."

"The residents of Allston-Brighton deserve better than this," added Yoon. The emails "communicate a message that the people [of Allston-Brighton] don't matter."

"What we're up against is resistance, what we're up against is contempt," said Selvig. He said that their campaigns are about trying "to build us a city hall that will fight for us... instead of rich and powerful developers."

The Boston Globe published extracts Saturday from internal emails written by Boston Redevelopment Authority officials -- particularly by senior project manager Jay Rourke, who is in charge of the BRA's review of the proposed project -- which were disparaging towards a number of people in the community. The emails were obtained by North Allston resident Harry Mattison in response to a request for documents under the state's Public Records Law, and were published by Mattison on his Allston Brighton Community Blog.

The Globe article states that the BRA last Thursday, in apparent response to their reporter's inquiries, issued a verbal reprimand to Rourke and a letter in his personnel file. Rourke also issued some kind of apology to the neighborhood. “These are internal e-mails," the Globe quoted him saying. “They are my comments to staff members and should not reflect on the agency."

Flaherty said that he, as a city-wide official, wanted to apologize to the neighborhood residents on behalf of the city for the "disrespectful" language of the emails, even though he did not author them.

Candidates Propose Change in Development Process -- Including for Charlesview

The press conference was held at the site of the proposed Charlesview relocation project, which would construct 360-units of low-income rental and market-rate home-ownership housing.

In response to several questions about the development Floon flailed a bit, not appearing to be knowledgeable about controversial aspects of the project -- such as an allegation that the project entails economic segregation by spatially separating the low-income housing units from the market-rate ones. Selvig was well-versed on the project, however, and noted that the proposed development only includes far less than the city-wide average of green space and a lower home ownership rate than both the city-wide average and Allston-Brighton itself.

Both halves of Floon pointed instead to broader deficiencies in the approval process itself, and the BRA's role relative to Mayor Thomas Menino, in describing how they would have approached the Charlesview project differently.

Yoon said that the development process works better starting with community input and a blank sheet of paper, rather than have the BRA run it based on a developer's proposal. Yoon's community-led process "respects [the community's] integrity. It's doable. It's been done. It's not happening now." It's ironic that he didn't seem to realize that a group of residents of North Allston-Brighton obtained the services of a city planner to do exactly what he envisioned by creating an alternative development plan for the Charlesview relocation.

Flaherty took a more direct tack. People need to "realize the mayor is the BRA," said Flaherty. "The whole sham needs to be disclosed. They make decisions unilaterally." He was also deeply critical of the BRA's public meeting process.

He repeated his proposal that developers should submit to a "performance bond," whereby they would "commit to doing what they promised to do." He broadened his criticism to the mayor's handling of Harvard's expansion into North Allston-Brighton. "I wouldn't have sat on the sidelines while Harvard used straw buyers" to purchase many acres of land.

Added Selvig: "Harvard has really done wrong to this community. The Charlesview plan is only good for Harvard."

Councilor Ciommo Responds to BRA Emails

Reached by telephone later in the day, Councilor Mark Ciommo had some choice words to say about the BRA emails.

"Without question, totally unprofessional, disrespectful, and inappropriate," said Ciommo of Rourke's emails. "It just doesn't help the public discourse or process."

When asked whether he thought that Rourke's verbal reprimand and letter in his personnel file was an appropriate punishment, Ciommo responded that he as a supervisor ascribes to a procedure of "progressive discipline action."

"If [Rourke] had no other prior issues," then this would be the appropriate first step of discipline, he said. "I hope he's learned a valuable lesson from this."

As for whether these emails indicate that the BRA is responding to community input, Ciommo noted that, between the Charlesview project's first filing in 2008 and its revision in 2009, the emails as a whole indicate that the BRA was pushing the developer to modify the project to be less dense and have more home ownership. Both were issues voiced by neighborhood residents and the elected officials -- although Ciommo acknowledged that it is difficult to identify exactly whose input the BRA was being responsive to. Ciommo also noted that he assisted Mattison in obtaining the emails from the BRA without the cost that the agency had originally proposed to charge.

Media Coverage of Event

Monday's press conference was attended by a number of media outlets, including NECN, Fox25 News, the Boston Globe, WBUR, the Allston-Brighton TAB, and the Boston Bulletin.

The Globe received no comment from the Menino campaign, but NECN did:
The mayor says the BRA has done a good job, both in present projects and in the future. Menino bristles at the accusation that the BRA is a failure of his administration. He acknowledges the poor taste of the e-mails, and says action has been taken.
John Palmieri, director of the BRA, responded angrily to Flaherty's salvos:
"It's more a reflection of a desperate campaign than the way we try to conduct business at the redevelopment authority," Palmieri said. "I found it insulting"...

"[Rourke's] lapse doesn't reflect the authority's point of view in how we deal with the neighborhood," Palmieri said. "On the contrary, we make every effort to maintain our balance and integrity with how we deal with these neighborhood issues."
BRA spokesperson Susan Elsbree echoed these comments to the TAB, pointing at frustration with “two or three individuals who are trying to stop the relocation of 700 residents." She also criticized Flaherty's performance bond idea:
Elsbree called the plan “a bit of political rhetoric” and questioned how the Flaherty administration would replace the BRA, which currently has a $50 million operating budget generated by leased properties throughout Boston. She also stated the BRA has requested Harvard reactivate empty business properties throughout the neighborhood, but did not set any deadlines for the school to make these locations available.
There were a lot of hugs offered, too, at least metaphorically.

BRA's Rourke a Familiar Name in Mayoral Campaign

Followers of the mayoral election may remember Rourke's name as having appeared in the Boston Globe last month. A Hyde Park resident and Menino campaign contributor, Rourke bought a city-owned parcel of land for 5% of its assessed value -- one of around 600 such far under-market-price sales of city land over the last 16 years:
Another property, which McCrea highlighted during the debate, went to James Rourke, who works for the city’s development agency. He and his Hyde Park neighbor got a 10,000-square-foot property for $5,000 in June. It was assessed at $99,400.
Then-mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea brought this property sale arrangement to the public's notice during a mayoral debate and on his blog.

All 13 members of the Boston City Council, including Flaherty and Yoon, voted unanimously on November 2, 2008 to surplus the land at 0 Prescott Street to the city; Mayor Menino subsequently signed the surplus order on November 10, according to the deed for the property on file at Suffolk County Registry of Deeds.

Rourke this year contributed $200 to Mayor Menino's reelection campaign on June 19th -- ten days before the city concluded the sale to him of the Hyde Park parcel. He also contributed to Menino's campaign in 2005 and 2006.

Earlier this year, Rourke appeared to be uninformed about statutory requirements of the state's Open Meeting Law which permit public videotaping of a public meeting held by the BRA as part of the regulatory review of the Charlesview relocation development proposal submitted to the city.

Rourke was also the project manager several years ago overseeing review of St. Elizabeth's Medical Center institutional master plan amendment to construct a new emergency room -- and approving a neighborhood-opposed access road alongside an historical monastery building. The access road encountered its own roadblocks in subsequent review at the state level, and was never built.

Saturday's Globe article noted that Rourke lived in Allston for 27 years when growing up.

Image of, left-to-right, Michael Flaherty [blue jacket], Harry Mattison [blue shirt], Alex Selvig, and Sam Yoon.

Update (10/27/09): Added comments by Elsbree from TAB article.

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